BikingMan Laos, “The toughest race by far.”

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BikingMan Laos, “The toughest race by far.”

 

“Laos is the toughest BikingMan race by far,” said winner, Jason Black, who completed the 785-km circuit through the country’s northwest in 51:42. “The combination of heat, rain, mountains, the unknown…”   

And the unexpected. Lao cycler, Thavone Phonasa, came in 3rd in 62:24 on his BikingMan debut. “That’s a big deal,” said BikingMan Founder and CEO Axel Carion, as Thavone took the chequered flag at the Sanctuary Luang Prabang hotel. “That’s a really big deal.”

Thavone nails 3rd..."A really big deal."

Australian ace, Michael Duane held a 7-hour lead by Checkpoint 2 in Kasi, and some smelled victory, but he finished 2nd at 53:09. Not many bet reigning BikingMan World Champion, Peruvian Rodney Soncco, with a string of wins and who had led the race, would clock in 4th at 68:37.  

Few thought Jonas Deichmann would finish last, as he had also been in front. The German broke a ball bearing during the Mount Kasi climb, and walked and coasted over the mountains for 225 km to finish in 107:16 on Friday. 

Jason spotted Jonas, carrying his bike to his room, with about 13 hours remaining to be classified as a finisher in the unassisted ultracycling race. “I have a lot of respect for him,” the Irishman said.  

Non-finisher Marcus Leach, retired after six tyre blowouts before the 130-km mark. He turned his disappointment into a positive. “I might as well enjoy the Luang Prabang experience,” he said. The Brit had repaired his bike and cycled daily through the countryside.  

Read while following on the GPS Tracking Map.

The Start

A scrum of 15 ultracyclers from 9 countries crowded the Sanctuary’s entrance to start BikingMan Laos at the cool, dark hour of 05:00. Organiser and media vehicles lined the street’s curbs, with early morning traffic squeezing through the gaggle. Curious neighbours looked on.

Rodney (left) and Marcus on the front row at the start.

The racers took off and headed to Route 13 North and Pakmong, 111 km from the start. Axel said the rolling hills presented a good “warm up”. A stretch of gravel at a dam project interrupted the paved road, the first of many challenges to come. Jason had tangled with another cycler, and stopped to repair a flat. 

Rodney arrived at Pakmong in the lead at 08:45, Here, the circuit veered west and into the mountains. A 10-km-long string of cyclers followed. Jonas was about 1 km behind Rodney, with Michael and Swiss cycler Fabian Burri a further 1 km adrift. Jason had recovered and was racing through the pack. Not far behind came Thavisack Souvannara leading his compatriot, Thavone, the French Team of Simon Noel and Romaine Level, and Stefano Facchini (Swiss). 

Pakmong: The Climb Begins

“They arrived at Pakmong sooner than expected. But that always happens,” Axel commented. However, the mercury was climbing as fast as the paved circuit, which deteriorated to patches of gravel and potholes. At 150 km into the race, the steep, twisty road vanished over a 25-cm cliff and onto stones.

Rodney navigates over the drop onto gravel.

Jonas had passed Rodney, holding a 5-minute lead as he leapt over the drop-off at 10:35. Rodney soon arrived with Michael 2 km back, followed by Stefano, Thavisak, Fabian, the French duo, Thavone, and Jason, all within a 13-km train. 

Oudomxay: Break Time

The Oudomxay Bus Station sits at the bottom of the mountain at KM 187 and the turnoff to Checkpoint 1 in Pakbeng. By 12:30, Jonas and Rodney had already whizzed by, with the leader holding a 4-km advantage in the humid 40°C heat.  

A small outdoor restaurant offered a view of the riders coming down the last of the winding mountain road. Michael flew past at 12:40, with Stefano running hard just 20 minutes back. The French Team pulled in at 1:15 for a break. 

Romain and Simon taking a break at the Oudomxay Bus Station.

“Everything was good for the first 100 km, but by 11:00, it was 38°, and we faced 10° climbs,” Romain said while filling up on saltwater mixed with Coke. “We stopped twice for 10 minutes and felt okay…I really enjoyed the wonderful landscape, and the little kids at villages clapping my hand.”

Simon agreed. “The high fives at the villages were great.” They dined on ping gai (BBQ chicken) and sticky rice…and plenty of water.

Thavisack arrived 30 minutes after the French, with Thavone popping in moments later. “I never did this circuit. This is the first time,” Thavone said. “And it’s very hot.” The two guzzled water and also ate ping gai and a pile of sticky rice. He added that the owner of race sponsor Green Discovery Laos, Inthy Deuansavanh, had urged the two to enter BikingMan Laos.

Thavisack arrives for lunch.

Jason raced by the restaurant around 14:00. The Lao cyclers departed at 14:15, and the French pair at 14:25. They still led the Teams competition, but the 70-minute stop dropped them to 7th and 8th overall.  

The Brutal 135-Km Run to CP1

The heat continued draining the riders, though the road to the Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge and Checkpoint 1 at KM 326 was mostly downhill. At 15:30, Thavisack sat at a small village shop near KM 200. The thermometer read 42°. His head was spinning, and he was vomiting between slugs of water. Dr Gerard from Medecins de Chinguetti arrived on his motorcycle with a mobile pharmacy. Thavisack’s coach picked him up at 15:45. Race run.

By now, Rodney had reached KM 265, about 60 km from CP1. Michael pedalled 10 km behind, having passed Jonas, a further 5 km back, but 10 km ahead of Stefano. Jason was on a tear, now less than 10 km from the Swiss rider and 10 km ahead of the French pair, resting at KM 220. Fabian, now 9th overall, had just started the run to CP1.    

The French Team pulled off again at a shop at 17:00. Romain and Simon guzzled more salt water and tablets as Dr Gerard, the media, and organizers pulled up. The village kids shyly gathered. An elder wondered what was going on.     

Village kids look on as the French Team rehydrate.

As the French pair headed out at 18:00, Michael had just passed Rodney for the lead with 20 km to CP1. Jonas was 15 km back, and just ahead of Stefano and Jason, who were running neck and neck. Thavone was 10 km behind that battle, with Fabian some 20 km short of the French.

Rodney and Michael reached CP1 by 18:45 within a minute of each other. Jason had climbed back to 3rd, arriving at 19:47. Jonas came next at 20:08, with Thavone not far behind at 20:43. The French clocked in just after 22:30, with Fabien pulling in past midnight. Stefano and James Runn scratched. The back of the pack arrived by early Tuesday morning. 

Goodnight Pakbeng

After a 3.5-hour break, Rodney hit the road around 22:00, but returned to CP1 within the hour, having vomited. The World Champion decided on a comfortable bed and sleep, as did the others.

The race’s – and championship’s – complexion had changed. Rodney won 2019’s first round in Oman, a 1,050-km desert run, in 38:20. He triumphed on Corsica’s 700-km mountain-and-seashore circuit in 30:52. But after 24 hours into BikingMan Laos, he was in bed at KM 326, as were many others, and they had yet to reach halfway.

Jason and Michael left Pakbeng around 05:00 on Day 2. They crossed the Mekong and headed east on a 85-km swerving mountainous run, with 10° climbs, to Hongsa and “The Jungle”. The French team followed at 05:10, with Thavone and the other front runners departing shortly after.

Thavone reels in the Frenchmen

By 09:00, Jason and Michael had passed Hongsa and disappeared into The Jungle. Thavone was on the Frenchmen’s tail at 10:30, as they reached the Hongsa section’s highest peak at KM 395 before passing them on the ride into town. 

Jonas raced 15 minutes behind, with Fabien finally passing Rodney, both running a further 20-30 km behind. Up front, Michael led Jason as they left The Jungle at Sayabouly and headed to the challenging Mount Kasi Climb.    

Welcome to “The Jungle”

Thavone was enjoying a bowl of noodles and litres of water at the Hongsa Market (KM 410) at 11:30. The Lao cycler now stood third overall, and looked strong. “I feel good,” he said. 

After lunch, he walked around the market, chatting with the shop owners, while checking out the goods. He left for The Jungle and Sayabouly at 11:55.

Thavone looking strong at Hongsa

The French pair pulled in shortly after Thavone, ate noodles, went through their water ritual, and were into The Jungle by noon. Jonas arrived some 20 minutes later, with Fabian, a revitalized Carl Tilling - cycling in the Team category without a mate – and Rodney, all within 25 km of Hongsa.  

Way up front at KM 576 at the top of Mount Kasi, Michael checked into CP2 at just after 14:00, and left 15 minutes later, some 33 hours into the race. Jason stopped before the climb at the junction with the Kasi road and the shortcut to Luang Prabang. He rested for hours while temperatures soared. 

Meanwhile, the midfield battled The Jungle, and each other, on an endless string of tight switchbacks, with gradients reaching 15°, both up and down. Thavone led the group, who were fighting 40°-plus heat and high humidity. Jonas had now passed the struggling, but resilient, French Team. Rodney had re-passed Fabien with Carl falling back. 

Welcome to The Jungle.

The road levelled off into rolling hills, providing some relief. Dark clouds threatened, but the much-wanted rain never came. Romaine and Noel set their sights on Sayabouly by sundown. Most others followed suit.

The Kasi Climb

The Mount Kasi Road climbs 900 metres in 40 km to reach CP2. Gradients top 15% during the ride. Michael aside, cyclers had to decide whether to tackle Kasi at night when it’s cool, or sleep before the push to the summit and final assault on Luang Prabang. Michael had gone for it and was stretching his lead, while Jason slept out the day. 

We Are Lao oversaw CP2 with its bamboo huts, tents, therapist from Lao Friends Hospital for Children, noodle shop, and a few small wooden stores at the Kasi viewpoint. Those manning CP2 warned the riders that the downhill run to Kasi Town was being paved and still mostly gravel.

CP2 and it looks like rain 

Jason woke and arrived at CP2 at 21:20, more than 7 hours behind Michael. He paused for 25 minutes, while the leader was already past Kasi Town and on Route 13 North to Luang Prabang. The race had now passed the 40-hour mark. According to the GPS tracking, Thavone started resting at the base of the Kasi Climb with Jonas soon to arrive. 

Meanwhile, the French pair had checked into a Sayabouly hotel, as Rodney and Fabien closed in on the town. Up front, Michael stopped at a village on Route 13 at 22:35, with some 130 km from the finish line. He held a 6-hour lead.

The wind picked up around midnight, when sheets of rain hit CP2 and the surrounding area. Michael stayed put, while Jason continued, 40 km away on Route 13. Thavone remained holed up at the Kasi-Luang Prabang junction, while most of the midfield stayed in Sayabouly. Fabien stopped for cover, just 23 km out of town.

While they slept, Jason passed a resting Michael at about 03:00 on Wednesday, 46 hours into the race. “I kept going in the rain and Michael didn’t,” Jason said of grabbing the lead. This proved his point, “The best plan is not having a plan.” It paid off. Michael got going around 90 minutes later.

Thavone checked in CP2 at 07:13 after an early morning start. He stayed about 20 minutes before heading down the mountain, 50:25 into his race. The French team had reached the Kasi turnoff and began their climb. Jonas was with them, but his ball bearings began to crumble. 

The first three sign in at CP2, with the French Team coming next.

Rodney had left Sayabouly as Fabian was closing in on the town. The Belgian Pair of Allison Baete and Xavier Massart had just passed Carl, but were still some 65 km from Sayabouly. Meanwhile, Jason was a bit more than an hour from the finish line, having crested the race’s final peak after 07:00.  

The French check in at CP2

The French pair pulled into CP2 at 10:25, while Jason had already crossed the finish line at the Sanctuary Luang Prabang before 09:00. His time of 51:52 made Laos the longest BikingMan race to date. Michael grabbed 2nd place, 80 minutes later, having led most of the race. However, plenty of action was still coming their way.

The Rains Return

Black clouds began to darken the mountain top view at 11:30, after the French had departed. A pair of Asian bikepackers arrived, having stumbled into the middle of a BikingMan war. Jonas walked with his cycle at noon about 12 km from CP2. The bearing was shot. 

“The pedals skip when I push hard,” he said. “I’ll walk to CP2 and coast down the hill to see if there’s a shop in Kasi, where I can fix it.” The skies opened up around noon to find Jonas walking barefoot in the rain. “I will finish.”

Bearings shot, Jonas begins walking in the rain.

Rodney had some 15 km to reach CP2 at 12:45, as he pumped up the steep slope. “Ow,” was all he could say. 

Here comes Rodney.

Fabien had stopped at the noodle shop, sitting at the Kasi-Luang Prabang junction, just after 13:00. He was riding a manufacturer’s test bike, but he was unhappy with the set up. “They gave me two heavy gears. I wanted compact. They gave me 52 teeth on the large front sprocket. I had asked for 50. The smaller one had 36, but I wanted 34.” The difference showed in the results.

Fabian prepares for the climb.

Fabien, along with Markus, was also testing Shimano’s D12 electronic shifting, which has not yet reached the marketplace. “Electric is cool and handy, but Markus has the cord,” Fabien said. “I haven’t recharged since the start of Corsica. I hope it won’t run out. If it does, I’ll have to manually pull the cable.”

The Final Run

Local bikepackers know well the road from Kasi Town to the finish in Luang Prabang. The winding, pothole-filled climb up Phou Khoun Mountain takes cyclers from 600 to 1,420 metres in some 20 km. A 50-km mountain range follows, and ends at a sharp downhill, a shorter climb, and then a 30-km ride home. 

Thavone finished third at 19:24, but first in everyone’s heart, completing the race in 62:24. He was all smiles while facing the crowd at the finish line. The Lao flag came out, and Thavone held it with pride. Onlookers lined up for a photo with the new sports hero of Laos. 

Thavone nails 3rd place.

As Thavone clocked in, Rodney had reached Phou Khoun, about 25 km behind Romaine and Simon, racing up and down on the mountain ridge. Jonas found no bearing remedy in Kasi Town, and had begun the climb to Phou Khoun in 7th place. Fabien had reached CP2, with Carl in mid- Kasi Climb.

Rodney caught the French Team around 23:00 on the final climb at KM 725. Jonas and his wounded bike began marching up to Phou Khoun, while Carl passed Fabien on the approach to Kasi Town. 

The Peruvian ace crossed the line past midnight in 4th, some six hours after Thavone, with a time of 68:37. The French Team followed Rodney, finishing 30 minutes later. About the same time, Fabien passed Carl on the mountain ridge, while Jonas managed to crest the Phou Khoun peak. The Belgian team went by Jonas on the final mountain before noon on Friday. And that’s how they finished.

With his ever-present smile, a dethroned Rodney said, “The race was very tough, but the people along the way were great.” Rodney’s next challenge is a trans-USA race from Los Angeles to Maryland. “I really want to get to New York after the race and ride with the bicycle messengers. They have no brakes, go through red lights…they’re crazy.” He also praised Thavone, the rookie who beat him to the final podium step.

Rodney unwinds after the race

Inthy, the lead BikingMan Laos sponsor who also organises charity cycling races Laos, said, “This is a great achievement for Thavone, and a great day for Laos.” He added Thavone may enter BikingMan Taiwan in November before the Southeast Asia Games in December.  

Jason collects his prize for winning BikngMan Laos.

While Jason won the race, the Lao circuit became an overnight sensation. Countless lead and position changes, 3rd place for a local amateur, a top cycler dropping from 1st to last, the end of a champion’s winning streak, a record-long race at 51:42, pot-holed roads on swerving 15°-plus, mountain roads, temperatures soaring above 40°C…Laos proved itself to be BikingMan’s toughest race yet.
 
*Some times and distances are based on GPS tracking with updates every 20-30 minutes, and may not be 100% accurate.

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